When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt

By Ekta R. Garg

March 2, 2011

Rated: Bookmark it!

Pamela Schoenewaldt’s brand new book When We Were Strangers astonished me.  It astonished me in several ways: how fast it took to read it, how deep the story was in only 312 pages, and how Schoenewaldt managed to tell a tale that clearly captures the feeling and essence of the story’s time period without resorting to racy, graphic, profane passages.  A quote on the book’s cover from author Carolly Erickson reads, “I long for this kind of prose.  A cut above.”  I agree wholeheartedly with Erickson’s assertion.

Set in the late 1800s, Schoenewaldt introduces us to Irma Vitale who lives in rural Italy in the small village of Opi.  Despite Irma’s ailing mother’s proclamation that all Vitales who leave Opi are doomed to die among strangers, after her mother’s death Irma defies the family “curse”: she leaves everything she knows of her village, of Italy, of the Mediterranean portion of the world and travels all the way to America.

She is following her brother, Carlo, who went on before her in hopes of a better life.  Carlo levaes with plans to reach Cleveland after tales waft through Opi of good work and a more comfortable life there.  But once Carlo sets foot out of Opi, no one hears from him ever again.  Despite the anxiety caused by his lack of news, Irma squares her shoulders and prepares to follow him to Cleveland.  She knows if she stays in Opi, she’ll most likely spend the rest of her days single and unable to survive the harsh life of the village.  On the urging of her zia (“aunt” in Italian,) Irma decides to put her sewing and needlework to work for her and embarks on her journey with the plan to support herself in Cleveland with these talents.

Schoenewaldt presents readers with a colorful and detailed narrative of Irma’s journey out of Italy and across the ocean in the steerage section of a ship.  Irma is scared; she’s never been away from Opi, and the flurry of experiences in leaving Opi and then Italy leave her almost breathless.  Nonetheless, she’s determined to find her brother and pushes through one challenge after another.  When she reaches Cleveland and begins working there she harbors deep hope that she’ll find Carlo, but when she doesn’t find him and finally allows that hope to die she has to decide what she’ll do to take care of herself.

In 312 pages Irma lives a significant portion of her life and experiences major life events. Schoenewaldt doesn’t hold back; she throws some harsh circumstances in Irma’s way, but Irma’s tenacity to succeed endures.  The girl who leaves Opi and the girl who arrives in Cleveland and later travels on are two drastically different women, and yet Irma’s spirit is still the same and we can cheer her on and sympathize with her for this very reason.  Along with Irma we learn that no matter where life takes us we have the potential to make our home anywhere, and while those around us in a new location may start out strangers we also have the potential to make those strangers our own family.

I read the book in the space of a weekend.  Schoenewaldt’s prose is easy on the mind and allows readers to enjoy the story without forcing them to work too hard but also takes us to an intimate level of the story by telling it in first person.  This combination gives us a wonderful experience that made me want to turn back to the beginning and re-read the entire book right away.

Finally, what I appreciated most about When We Were Strangers was the lack of unnecessary words and scenes.  Unfortunately most writers think adding an excess of profanity or sex scenes to a story adds some spice to it.  I never use profanity in my writing—I don’t use it in my own speech and know dozens of people who manage to communicate without it—and sex scenes in my opinion should be used sparingly to heighten their dramatic effect (sex sells, I know, but it doesn’t have to be the only valuable selling point.)  More than that, though, Schoenewaldt captures the quaint feeling of the time period without making her story dull or naïve.  That, in my mind, is the mark of a truly talented writer, and I look forward to more of Schoenewaldt’s work in the future.

When We Were Strangers is a must-read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction or a good book in general.


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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